Monday, June 1, 2015

Looking in the Mirror- Some reflections on what I took away from attending a Footsteps event

Since attending the Footsteps event on Thursday evening, I’ve figured out what I want to write...about ten different  times. Each time, I have tried to find a balanced approach that would be honest, free of sappiness, pleasing to friends and critics of Footsteps alike, and thought-provoking. Oh, and also a good read. I’ve decided to write now, not because I’ve found a combination of those things, but because there is a message here that needs to be shared.

Last night, I received a phone call from a Footsteps member I met Thursday night. I don’t know his background story, nor does it matter that much. I do know that he grew up in an insular chassidic community, is now secular, and that he is very involved in Footsteps. He was calling to find out about Project Makom, an organization with which I am involved, that helps charedim who are interested, transition to a more modern Orthodox community. He has a friend who no longer wishes to live as a charedi Jew, and based on a conversation with his friend, he thought Project Makom and not Footsteps would be the right address.

I share this story not because it proves anything about Footsteps, but because it has the potential to show those who think  of Footsteps as “OTD kiruv”, that things are more nuanced than that. If I had to choose the biggest lesson I learned Thursday night, and there were many, it is that Footsteps is not monolithic, and that attempts to paint it as such are unfair and unkind.

As I wrote Thursday night, I’m not going to discuss the private conversations that I had, but in sharing some general ideas, I hope that I can generate some thoughtful discussion, and deeper understanding. After going back and forth several times, I’m not going to try and make use of Jewish sources to justify my views, although I think I could. This is not the place for that.

Let’s start with certain givens. Despite being “frum” and a maamin, I do not believe that, even if presented at its best (whatever that might mean), Torah Judaism (another nebulous phrase) would work for all Jews. Once you factor in communities where religious, educational, and communal decisions are made, for all sorts of reasons, ideal and not, there will always be those who choose to leave. No community, no approach, no amount of strictness, or openness, or anything, will work for everyone. Add in the fact that communities are complex, and often have all sorts of competing pulls, and types of people calling the shots, and, inherently, some people will want out. I do not wish to criticize the charedi world, particularly as an outsider. All I will say at this point is that, as with my community, as with any community, things are not perfect in the charedi world.

Another given. Any attempt by any of us to decide whether someone’s reason for leaving their community, and observance is good or legitimate, is presumptuous. We have no idea what another person has experienced, and even if we did, that would still give us no legitimate reason or right  to judge.

With those givens, let’s proceed. When a person leaves the charedi world, particularly its more extreme manifestations, they need a lot of help to land on their feet. Often, they lack the educational background, as well as the social skills and knowledge of how to interact with those from outside of the world in which they grew up. In addition to needing help with those things, leaving is almost always traumatic. The decision to leave often comes with the regular psychological difficulties that come from leaving one’s world of comfort, as well as the fact that they are often rejected by family and friends. That being the case, there is only one legitimate question that can be asked “How can I help ease your pain?”. Anything else is callous. If that question is asked, with strings attached, it is cruel. A fireman does not ask questions. He just helps those who need to be saved.

Footsteps is an organization that asks this question. It provides help to people so that each member can have the freedom to make the choice they want, and more than anything, freedom seems to be at the top of the list of what its members want. Freedom from limitations on who they can be, what jobs they can have, whom they can marry, freedom of intellectual inquiry, and, yes, for many, freedom from religion. For some, and this is connected to what I just wrote, they also want to be free from a world where they have suffered abuses of all kinds. There are some who are angry, hurt, resentful, cynical and simply anti-religion and dogma.

Watching the program on Thursday night, I heard of people who had been helped to be able to get a GED, go to medical school, and work as a nurse in Haiti helping poor people. I met one man, who, having just gotten his MSW, is working to help children from his former community receive the secular education they deserve. I found myself wondering if there were too many other communities in the world, where these achievements would be met with anything but praise.

I also listened to one speaker talk about the type of religious questions she left behind, and wondered whether a simplistic Torah education which can not even distinguish between peshat and derash, will not lead to people having huge questions, the minute they are exposed to serious areas of thought.

Speaking of which, the internet is a game changer. Gone are the days when the charedi world can, more or less, keep the outside world out. IPhones bring power. A simple Google search can lead to, well, anything. Banning, and threatening probably never was that smart of an approach. Now, it’s also futile.

After the program, I spoke with a friend who had attended a serious Litvish yeshiva. He was never taught anything more than Shas and Rishonim, and his questions were met with answers considered brilliant, only by those who don’t understand that word. Rather than be threatened by the questions, might not we take them as a challenge to step up our game. Shouldn’t we try to  spend serious time thinking about the questions, and how we might respond with honesty and depth when confronted with them?

So what is Footsteps? Is it good or bad? Are they doing OTD Kiruv? What’s their agenda? What are they really like? The simple answer is that there is no one single Footsteps. It is not a person. It is made up of people, many different people. However, if you want to view it in a monolithic manner, I’d say the following. Footsteps is giant mirror being held up to the frum world, challenging us to look at ourselves. Who are we? What’s our agenda? What are we really like? Do we care about each member of our family and community, or only about our reputation, and our team? Before we look past the mirror and ask questions about those who are holding it up, I strongly suggest we look deeply in the mirror, and face ourselves, warts and all.

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